Every New Year is ushered in to the strains of Robert Burns’ renowned Auld Lang Syne. Each January 25th his biggest fans gather at Burn Suppers to celebrate his great work by feasting on haggis, root vegetables and a little dram of whisky. And yet, despite being one of Scotland’s most famous exports, my encounters with him have mainly been restricted to humming along to Ae Fond Kiss.
So when I recently discovered that the site of the Burns family ancestral home was nearby in Alloway, Ayr, I set out to discover more about this intriguing, Scottish wordsmith.
With its thatched roof and rustic interior, the preserved Burns home looks and feels like it is an extension of its surrounding landscape. Visitors are invited to explore the interior of the building and I felt that there was a real sense of homeliness amidst the simplicity of the rooms. It was somewhat reminiscent of the blackhouses in the Western Isles. It is a wonder to walk around and consider how these surroundings would have embedded themselves in Burns’ work. This is something you are encouraged to think about as the writing on the walls guide you to consider beyond the simplicity of the house and to the ways in which he might have been inspired by his homelife.
After stopping at the preserved Burns cottage, visitors are encouraged to take The Poet’s Path. This is a walkway that joins the site of the homestead to the main museum site. This Path is dotted with wind vanes that tell the famous story of Burns’ poem Tam O’ Shanter which, coincidentally, is one of the only Burns poems I remember from school (I’m entirely certain this has everything to do with the intrigue of the devil playing the bagpipes in a church!).
I have to admit here that whilst I enjoyed the outdoor areas of the site a lot, I didn’t spend too much time in the museum itself. It’s certainly possible to circumvent the whole exhibition as part of a day out but I was more interested in the surrounding area that day than doing a lot of reading. They have some great gems in there though, including clothing, jewellery and other personal items belonging to the Burns family.
There are a few more sites to see around the museum, including the Burns Monument. I came across it by accident as I’d lost track of my map somewhere on my trip. But this is really worth seeing in person – it’s hugely grand and the surrounding gardens are incredibly well-kept.
The highlight of my visit was the last stop on my self-guided tour – The Auld Kirk. This is the church that inspired Tam O’ Shanter. There are paving stones fixed into the ground in a circle around the church and the fact that the site is surrounded by a real graveyard makes it an authentic checking-over-your-shoulder experience.
There is something quite moving and profound about getting a glimpse into what may have inspired renowned writers to hone their craft and about treading the paths that they once walked.The Robert Burns site certainly offers this unique experience and will give an excellent welcome to those who pilgrimage there from all over the world.
Whether you’re looking for inspiration, are wanting to envelop yourself in history or just want to try out an excellent empire biscuit in the site cafe – then Alloway should definitely be the next place on your “to visit” list!